The later it gets on this Wednesday night, the faster the calls come in—and the more likely callers are to slur their words. At the moment, customers are waiting for cars at Moonshine bar, Alma restaurant, the Food Co-op, Starbucks on Court and Joralemon, Home Depot, and Steiner Studios in the Brooklyn Navy Yard. At 10:44, there are six calls to assign, four phone lines lit up, and one driver who says he’s at the right address but nobody is outside. Manny punches out at 11:01, finishing a 45-minute flurry of dispatching in which he’s thrown 102 calls.
As usual, two surveillance cameras have recorded the entire shift. These days, Arecibo’s bosses keep a close eye on the dispatch room to make sure nobody is surfing the Internet. Or coming back late from break. Or using a cell phone. The no-cell-phone rule is supposed to stop employees from steering the most lucrative calls to certain drivers, a practice known as “selling calls.” Arecibo’s manager admits that selling calls used to be a regular occurrence here. At least one employee would charge drivers $5 for an airport call. Another gave orders to the drivers who hung around the base—“Bring me water,” “Bring me juice”—then doled out calls to those who complied.
The question of which operator or dispatcher is selling calls is a frequent topic of debate among Arecibo’s drivers, since each pays the base $90 a week for the chance to compete for every job. For his part, Manny insists he never accepts money in exchange for calls. But he does admit that when he throws an airport call and twenty drivers hit their radios, he doesn’t always give it to the driver whose number appears first. “I pick out the better driver,” he says. “But I don’t do that all the time, because people got to eat, they got to pay bills.”
Not long ago, Arecibo gained a new competitor when Ramon, the dispatcher who had mentored Manny, quit and took two dispatchers with him. He bought into another livery-cab company, also on Fifth Avenue, just sixteen blocks away, called Express 11. Not only did Ramon hire the dispatchers who had left Arecibo with him, he also began poaching his former employer’s drivers, letting them drive the first week for free. It was an aggressive move, but not at all unusual in the competitive world of livery cabs.
Manny found himself caught in the middle of the feud between the two companies. Ramon was his friend, but Arecibo was his employer. By now, he had worked there for two and a half years, and he figured his job was safe. Then one afternoon, Arecibo’s co-owner called him into the back office and told him the company didn’t need his services anymore. “You’re firing me?” Manny asked. “What did I do?” To Manny, the moment was more surreal than anything: “I was like, am I getting Punk’d? Is Ashton Kutcher going to come out?”
Later, he heard that a driver had accused him of giving a call to Express 11. The driver said he’d been on his way to fetch a passenger, only to see that customer climbing into an Express 11 car. Manny denies steering calls to the competition, pointing out that customers sometimes call two car services to shorten their wait. But there was no chance to argue the point.
Just after stepping out of Arecibo’s dispatch room for the last time, Manny pulled out his cell phone and dialed Ramon. The next morning, he went over to Express 11. For three hours, Manny and Ramon rode around the neighborhood together, handing out business cards promoting Express 11 with the tagline: “The Lowest Price in NYC.” Back at Express 11’s storefront, Manny sat in front of a computer redoing the price list, reducing some of the fees to be slightly less than what Arecibo charges. The shock of losing his job seemed to have not yet sunk in. Every hour or so he repeated the same thought: “It’s amazing how things change in a day.”
Over the course of the afternoon, the other dispatchers who’d left Arecibo stopped in. Despite the fact that there are already hundreds of livery cabs circling the neighborhood, despite the dire economic climate, the mood was defiantly optimistic. They were confident that the fledgling base could move cars around Brooklyn faster than anyone—or at least fast enough to beat Arecibo. “When it’s wintertime and raining, the big companies no pick up right away phones,” Ramon says. “You got to pick up right away. If the price is good and the driver is good, the customer stays with us.”
Six hours after he arrived at Express 11, Manny was still hanging around. “This is where I work now,” he said. The dispatch room was not unlike the one he’d left the day before: the same map on the wall, the same computer software, a two-way radio on the desk. But at 5 p.m., Arecibo would be in its usual rush-hour frenzy. Here, the dispatchers slouched against the wall, hands stuffed into their pockets of their jeans. The phones rested in their cradles, and the only sound was the soft hum of the radio’s fan.